On the fire that does not consume.
A recording of this sermon can be found here beginning at 16:45.
Exodus 3:1-15: Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”
When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”
And he said, “Here I am.”
Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”
God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations. (NRSV)
Greetings to you and peace from God our Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Abiding Holy Spirit.
There are certain bits of scripture that reveal to us shocking and yet somehow also spirit-soothing truths about God. These little pieces of scripture are so profound, so unbelievable, so wild, that we must tell the story of them to ourselves all over again, generation after generation, but we must tell it anew for the story to resonate. We retell it a little longer or from a slightly different angle or with different details so that we might be able to hear and receive the truth of God’s grace and goodness. There are certain bits of scripture that sit closest to the heart of God in our midst. Today’s text is one of those bits that we come back to again and again: Moses and the burning bush story. Or maybe, more accurately, Moses and the not burning bush story. Just the first two verses hold enough truth to last a lifetime, actually multiple lifetimes. Here’s what they say:
And Moses was herding the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, priest of Midian, and he drove the flock into the wilderness and came to the mountain of God, to Horeb. And the Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of the bush, and he saw, and look, the bush was burning with fire and the bush was not consumed.
In just two verses we are introduced to a powerful and peculiar God. Moses, a man living the humble life of a shepherd in a rugged area, who probably felt pretty lucky to be living the life he was considering the crime that he had run away from; God appeared to this man. To Moses, the criminal, the failure, the shepherd, the son-in-law. God, the all-powerful initiator of creation, appeared before Moses as fire, something that transforms matter into heat and back to its component parts, and yet, God appeared as a fire that burned but did not dismantle. A fire that burned while it retained. And this peculiar God appeared while clinging to a lowly bush. Not a magnificent cedar. Not a lithe palm tree. Just a simple shrub. God appeared before a failed man as a fire that burned and kept the bush whole.
Already, in just two verses, we come face to face with a God who is powerful, but does not use that power to dominate. A God who prizes even the lowly and simple things of creation, like a shepherd named Moses or a modest bush at home in an arid landscape. We meet a God who is able to generate transformation while also preserving.
Then we hear the same story over again in the next 13 verses, but this time with more detail.
God appears before Moses, a man living the simple life of a shepherd in a rugged landscape, and explains that They have heard the cry of Their people who are, in fact, a lowly people living under the oppression of the Egyptians. God would like Moses to go and lead the people out of Egypt and into a land that will flow with milk and honey. Moses is not overwhelmed or gobbled up by God’s desire for Their people’s freedom. Moses gets to ask questions. To ask for assurance. God assures Moses that God will be with him.
When Moses returns to Mount Horeb, more commonly known as Mount Sinai, the same place he first met God amidst the fire-not-burning-bush, we meet God again but now Moses has God’s people with him. Just as God revealed Themselves as a flame on the branches of a humble shrub, God descends onto the mountain to reveal Themself to the entirety of the insignificant, motley nation of Israel. The people are scared, certainly, by the power in God’s thundering and burning fire, but they are not consumed. They meet a God who listens and responds to them. They meet a God who promises to stay.
When I hear Moses’ encounter with the fire that doesn’t consume, it reminds me of another piece of scripture close to the heart of who God is: the story from Luke when Mary consents to be Jesus’ mother. God, and God’s hope for the world, is revealed to her by a messenger, not fire this time, but the angel Gabriel. In a familiar way, he reveals that God is with her, a girl, nobody special. When she is told what God would like to accomplish through her, she is able to ask questions, and God’s angel responds, just like Moses questioning whether he could lead a nation out of Egypt. She will be transformed into something new, but she will not be burnt up.
Finally, we meet again God the Holy Spirit in a tongue of fire on the Day of Pentecost after Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Just as God revealed Themselves to Moses by clinging to the branches of a bush all those hundreds of years earlier, now God clings to the crown of each head. The people are not consumed, but hold the burning fire for all those to see and to hear of this God who listens and responds and moves among us.
And on and on God’s story goes. It spirals out and back, around and around. It is retold, rejuvenated, reestablished. The story of our Almighty God, who is brimming with transformative power, making all things new, and who chooses to appear to, who rests on, the commonplace things of the world: on a shrub, a shepherd, on a girl, and on a people. Again and again, we hear the story of a God who comes. God who listens. God who collaborates, and doesn’t dominate. God who transforms, and keeps whole. God with us. Thanks be to God.